WINCHESTER — One year after John Connolly first attended the Greek Festival put on annually by the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church, he was working the festival Saturday as a parishioner and convert to the faith.
"It was one of those things where you came for the food and stayed for the faith," said Connolly, a Front Royal resident who was raised in the Catholic Church. "The culture is a vehicle for the faith."
Connolly worked the register Saturday afternoon as a continuous line of patrons cycled through to purchase traditional Greek pastries, pasta dishes, sauces, roast meats and aged cheeses — all part of the attractions at the two-day festival that has been held at the church at 1700 Amherst St. for about 50 years.
"The reason we do this is to expose people to something they can't go down the street and get," Father Michael Kontogiorgis, the parish priest, said on Saturday, adding that all the food is homemade.
Kontogiorgis said the festival also exposes people to the Greek Orthodox faith, maybe for the first time. "It brings people into our church."
With more than 260 million members, Eastern Orthodoxy is the world's second largest Christian denomination, behind Catholicism. It is most commonly practiced in Eastern Europe, especially in Greece, Romania, Serbia and Moldova.
The parish in Winchester is the sole Orthodox church in the northern Shenandoah Valley and numbers about 55 families.
Connolly said new people are needed to keep the faith strong in America.
That's true for both the faith and the Greek culture, said Audrey Jalepes, president of the Ladies Philoptochos Society, a charitable works wing of the church.
"You can't survive with just old people like myself," she said Saturday as she handed out fresh pastries.
That's where events like the Greek Festival come in, Connolly said. The authentic food, ethnic music and dancing and family-friendly atmosphere attracts 2,000 to 3,000 visitors every year on the weekend after Aug. 15, the date of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Mother of God).
"I'm grateful for the Greek tradition for bringing Orthodoxy to me," Connolly said, adding that he was drawn to the "ancientness" and "reasonableness" of the faith, but never would have discovered it had he not first answered the call of the gyro lamb sandwiches.
Many of the parishioners have adult children who have moved away from Winchester, but return every year to help with the festival.
Mary Stathopoulos, a 1987 graduate of Handley High School now living in Fairfax, glazed Greek doughnuts with honey, aided by her 18-year-old niece Kleo Yeatras. Kleo's mother, Melany Yeatras of Winchester, fried the doughnuts, called loukoumades.
"It's important for the community," Melany Yeatras said of the festival, which is the church's primary fundraiser. "It helps my family."